Unconscious Denial Versus Tactical Denial

Understanding Unconscious Denial

Unconscious denial is a special kind of truth distortion. Freud defined it as an ego defense mechanism. And he described it as one of nature’s most primitive and powerful ways of self-protection. You see, life can dish out some incredibly painful experiences. Sometimes these happenings overtax our ability to cope. They can overwhelm us with anxiety or hurt. In short, they introduce into our lives a measure of pain simply too great to bear. To keep us from breaking down emotionally, nature provides us a way to block out overly painful realities. It’s not something we consciously choose to do. Rather, it’s something nature does for us. And, that’s not a bad thing.

A Helpful Example

In my book Character Disturbance, I give an example of unconscious denial (an edited quotation follows):

A woman has been married to a man over 40 years. She has just rushed him to the hospital because, while working in the yard, he began having trouble speaking and looked in some distress. Doctors later tell her he has suffered a stroke that has left him virtually brain dead and will not recover. But every day she is at his bedside, holding his hand and talking to him. Nurses tell her he cannot hear but she talks to him anyway. And they tell her he cannot feel, but she still holds his hand. They tell her he’s not coming back, but for weeks she comes every day to visit.

This woman faces a most painful reality. The love of her life was suddenly taken. And the full impact of this reality hasn’t set in just yet. That’s a good thing. The full impact might easily overwhelm her. So nature takes care of her. She doesn’t deliberately choose to distort reality for personal gain. Nature protects her from full appreciation of the reality until she’s able to cope with it. That’s the way it is with unconscious denial. It’s a psychological state, not a chosen behavior. And it’s a temporary state that nature will terminate after it’s served its purpose. Tactical denial is different – very different. And it’s not such a good thing.

Tactical Denial and Character

We’ve been talking about the “commandments” of good character.  And for the past few weeks we’ve been discussing how important it is to have reverence for the truth. Disturbed characters of all types lie frequently and about a lot of things. They don’t revere truth. In fact, they despise it. It can pose major obstacles to their self-serving agendas. And it can stand in the way of the opinion they like to hold of themselves. So, they lie. They can lie just as easily to themselves as they do to others. And they do it consciously and deliberately. More troubling, they sometimes do it with ease.

When character-impaired people do hurtful things, they’re often quick to deny it. But this kind of denial is not the unconscious denial mentioned above. Rather, it’s more of a conscious tactic  on their part. They do it primarily to deceive you and to keep from looking bad. And they also do it to avoid the really hard work associated with making a better person of themselves.

Another Example

I give an example of tactical denial in Character Disturbance (again, an edited quotation follows):

Joe, the class bully strolls up to an unsuspecting classmate in the hallway. He engages in one of his favorite mischievous pastimes: pushing the books out from under her arms, just to watch them fall on the floor. The hall monitor just happens to catch this out of the corner of her eye and sternly hollers: “Joe!” But Joe spreads his arms out wide and with a look of both surprise and confusion innocently asks: “Whaaat?” And he loudly proclaims: “I didn’t do anything!”

Let’s take a hard look at Joe’s “denial.” Could it be a case of unconscious denial? That is, is it possible Joe truly doesn’t realize what he has done? Could nature have intervened to keep him from experiencing a reality far to painful to bear? No, Joe’s denial is different. He knows the truth. But right now he regards it as his mortal enemy. If he admits the truth, he’ll likely face detention hall or even possible suspension. So, he has practical reasons to deny. And if he holds to his denial with passion and conviction he might just make the hall monitor doubt herself. His denial is conscious, deliberate, tactical. (Read more about this and the other major manipulation tactics in In Sheep’s Clothing.)

Dealing with Denial

To deal with denial effectively, you have to correctly identify what type it is. Folks in unconscious denial are most likely sitting on a mountain of pain. It would be cruel to put the harsh truth in their face. But folks who are just trying to deceive or evade responsibility need to be confronted.

Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of problem drinkers claim they had no real problem. This, despite ample in-their-face evidence all around them. And I’ve seen hundreds of emotional users and abusers destroy countless relationships while insisting they were actually decent and caring people. Unfortunately, many professionals saw these folks as in a state of unconscious denial. And they wasted a lot of time, money, and energy trying to nursemaid them out of this so-called denial. That’s why I took pains to cultivate the art of benign confrontation. (For more on this topic see:  Learning to Confront Benignly and Effectively.) And I’ll have more to say about how benign confrontation can help foster reverence for the truth in upcoming posts.

18 thoughts on “Unconscious Denial Versus Tactical Denial

  1. While I was being verbally abused in my former marriage, my children would hide under their beds. Now, many years later, I asked each one if they remembered hiding under their beds. None remembered. After I explained to each one what was going on back then, and after they had discussed it among themselves, did they suddenly recall. My oldest, who was 13 at that time, was visibly shaken when he understood what had transpired. The understanding had been that I broke up the family because I had left my husband. Things are much better now with my relationship with my kids. I am glad I told them.

    1. Lois,

      Thanks for sharing. I think something similar happened to my son. I believe he buried some memories about his dad’s aggressive behavior and nowadays believes it’s me who ended the relationship just because. He was very little at the time and now he’s 12 but I think he’s still not ready. But I also think at some point I will have to tell him.

      1. CE, Lois,

        I think and from my own experience the sooner you explain to your child, children the sooner the better. In explaining, it should be done in love, truth, compassion, empathy etc….. Children understand more than we realize.

        Teach your child to love their parent but not the behavior. This is by no means easy with so many “human feelings” going on, not to mention that of the societal pulls.

        I do appreciate your position and it is a difficult one. Truth, will build trust and set those who will accept it free. Not an easy road. the road of truth does not create the road of bondage the road of deception and lies
        the road of hate, rebellion, anger, frustration ets., creates. Teach your child in love and in truth….

        Blessings and peace

  2. My daughter is in her mid twenties and still does not want to hear the truths of what happened in the marriage, the things the X did. She flat out tell me she cannot handle it. I guess she’s protecting herself from hurt that what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her. But the problem is, she’s been the subject of his emotional abuse, which at one point I believe she had a nervous breakdown.
    My attempts to tell her things are with the goal of her understanding his character, that he strikes out at good people and attempts to create harm. I feel that well armed with knowledge helps protect oneself.
    I know that nobody wants to hear bad things about a parent, it’s hurtful. Hopefully she will one day ask questions and come to terms with what’s been done and what still continues.
    One has to consider the age of the “child” when confronting them with harmful truths.
    I don’t find it any less harmful to a child to have ill feelings towards the parent who was more the victim than the perpetrator. I think some truths should be known. But each situation is individualized.

    1. From my own experience which seems a lifetime ago now, I had to start facing myself after the break down of a second marriage where the verbal and physical abuse got me to the point I had to leave or possibly get killed or severely harmed. I had spent time as a police officer in the mid 60s in uk and seen too many domestic violence incidents which of course were not considered a police matter until some physical harm warranted medicale treatment. On reflection and with limited help back in the early 80’s I came to realise that what I was living with was a copy of what I had experienced from my parents who were not happy together and I think as the eldest of three girls and challenged both parents I became like a whipping boy for their own angst. Once I acknowledged this and went through the very emotional reaction i also realised where my own anger and lashing out was coming from. Obviously a lot more to it than this but as a result of this I made peace with both my parents before they died and sent them a letter telling them all the good values they had instilled in me. My sisters still refuse to speak after 30 years but I can still send them love and know they have their own demons to face but also that they may never do this. Knowing I cannot help them unless they talk I am ok with the person I am today but sad as we get older that they may take their silence to the grave when it could be resolved. Stay with your daughter and support her when she needs but not take any abuse or unkindness. we are living in a very strange world where values of love kindness, boundaries are becoming less seen by those in positions of power who could set a wonderful example if they could sort out their own personal dramas.

  3. To All, Lucy, Andy, Joey, Kat

    Lucy and the other posters do bring up good points. I believe when we, ourselves become healthy , we will be able to discern when and how to approach others.

    Andy and Joey, Kat, you have dealt with so many issues and I hold a high a regard for your wisdom on how you have dealt with your particular situations. Could you you please weigh in on what you can add to this conversation.

    Thank you

    1. I guess, I can only add that unconscious denials are rare. So, it is safe to assume all denials are tactical, unless proven otherwise. This is in line with what I now say about a character disturbed person: it is safe to assume that all claims are lies, unless proven otherwise. 😉

      1. I think you can be tactical unconsciously.

        You have the desired outcome (avoiding consequences) and automatically takes over.

  4. Andy D,
    When one has become very familiar and has years of experience in dealing with the character disturbed person, I would also assume all denials are tactical unless proven otherwise. These people are deliberate and want their end goal.
    I am familiar with a person who lies continuously even in matters that are not relevant as far as I can tell, but I can also tell you that he is a mentally ill person with diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar. He also lies knowingly because he wants me to believe certain things, to his pleasure.

    1. AndyD,

      Well said. I have not met a manipulator that didn’t have a reason behind their motives. Their minds are always thinking on how they will be on top in the one upmanship position. Like Dr. Simon says, it position, position, position..

      I guess one can be tactical unconsciously, this is due to being such a consistent liar, manipulator, twister of facts it becomes second nature like blinking ones eyes.

  5. BTOV
    Good point about being such a consistent liar that it might be unconscious, such a drilled-in pattern.
    I noticed with the X that he would lie even though he could easily be proven wrong.
    We see this behavior with POTUS nearly every day now, many times several times each day.

  6. Dr.
    Has there been any research into the unique relationship of personal care givers to those whose character disorder may not have been addressed prior to a life altering debilitation? Do the same rules apply in confronting them as extricating from them is not a viable option. There need be a “someone” there.

    Thanks for any insights into this special relationship. Eagerly await your reply. Thank you.

  7. The Tactical denial sounds awfully like the President of the USA having watched many of his video clips and a lot of his tweets. It also strikes me that this lack of what I see as self responsibility is becoming a disease among many world leaders.

    The unconscious denial sounds a little like my elderly neighbour 87 who was recently placed into a dementia unit by her son who had poa over her life yet she is still talking about going home when he has sold everything she had, never goes to visit her yet she also thinks he is busy working. Im not sure how much of this is memory loss such as dementia yet she was holding a reasonably normal conversation until this happened just before last Christmas. I saw her every day for 6 years but she now seems obsessive about maintaining her ‘fantasy” and is very sad to watch.

  8. Is it possible that the trauma of being severely punished for making mistakes would cause someone to become manipulative as a form of self-protection? Is this really a character flaw, or maladaptive coping?

    1. It is possible, but doesn’t happen often in today’s world.
      In my opinion, it is character flaw in the sense that the person is not honest. It is also maladaptive coping in the sense that the manipulative tendencies probably started when that person was not in a position to do anything better (maybe that person was a child in abusive home), and over a period of time that person did not learn anything better and instead became adept at manipulation to get things with least resistance from others. In either case, the way forward is to improve character first, say start being honest all the time.

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